November 9 marked the 21st anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Yet if the open-borders Europe of the Schengen agreement is no longer divided by concrete walls, barbed-wire fences, and sandy death-traps, 21st-century Europe remains deeply divided nonetheless. Evidence of the depth and nature of that division was plentiful before and during the recent anniversary.
On the night of November 9 (which is also the anniversary of Kristallnacht in 1938 and the Beer Hall Putsch in 1923), Herman Van Rompuy, the Belgian president of the European Union Council (and thus, by some reckonings, “president of Europe”), spoke in Berlin’s Pergamon Museum on the challenges facing European democracy in the 21st century. Three days earlier, in a homily at the venerable Spanish pilgrimage shrine of Santiago de Compostela, Pope Benedict XVI addressed a similar set of questions: Where will Europe find the civilizational energy to fuel its future as a distinct cultural enterprise? What, in fact, is “Europe”? Is it a set of pragmatic arrangements for mutual economic benefit? Or do its political and economic institutions express something like a common civilizational community? And if the latter is the case, then what are the sources of that community’s values and identity?
The answers given by Van Rompuy and Benedict could not have highlighted more sharply the different roads down which Europe might travel.
The Belgian’s speech was not without a certain comic quality, doubtless unintended. Van Rompuy fretted at some length about a new “Euro-skepticism,” which he identified with such anti-democratic forces as resurgent nationalism and populism — rather ignoring the fact that some Euro-skeptics would point to the completely undemocratic process by which Van Rompuy became “president of Europe” as one source of their skepticism about the project being imposed on them from Brussels. As for the new nationalism, the man whose own country threatens to splinter along linguistic fault-lines between its Flemish and Walloon segments, Belgian “nationality” being somewhat attenuated these days, condemned a nationalism that “is often not a positive feeling of pride of [he meant “in”] one’s own identity, but a negative feeling of apprehension of [he meant “about”] the others” (tell that to the citizens of Flanders and Wallonia). This “feeling all over Europe,” could, he warned, lead to war — although, given current European levels of defense spending, one might wonder what such a war would be fought with.
But it was Van Rompuy’s flaccid attempt to define the ethical sources of the new Europe’s identity that rang most hollow:
Alongside diversity — and diversity is certainly a strength of our societies — we still need, in each of our societies, a sense of unity, of belonging together. This sense of unity can lie in shared values; or in a language, a shared history, a will to live together. . . . And this will springs above all from the stories we tell each other.
Think of the ancient Greeks: The stories of Homer created bonds through the centuries. They have us spell-bound tonight. It can be the stories of war and peace, or Olympic exploits or saint-like sacrifice, of a prison stormed or a Wall which came down.
Such stories do what a treatise on “values” cannot achieve: They embody “virtues” in an understandable way, virtues shown by men and women in real situations. Courage, respect, responsibility, tolerance, a sense of the common good.
To keep such European virtues alive, to transmit their age-old qualities to our children and grandchildren, that will be one of the great challenges for the future.
Here is the post-modern theory of the triumph of “narrative” run so far amok that it becomes self-parody. Putting aside the question of whether, on present demographic trends, there will be all that many “children and grandchildren” to whom to tell stories of Attic courage, or the figure-skating gold medals of Sonja Henie, or the fall of the Bastille, or the breaching of the Berlin Wall, Van Rompuy’s European Story Hour is just that: a disconnected conglomeration of “narratives” telling no one compelling tale. Or if there is a tale here, it is, pace the Thane of Cawdor, a “tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”